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Donald Trump and Nikki Halley walk along a corridor.
Nikki Halley is one of the Republican candidates for president who stood against Donald Trump. White House Photo/Alamy

Five reasons why Trump’s Republican opponents were never going to beat him

Donald Trump’s inexorable march to the 2024 Republican presidential nomination has sparked plenty of second-guessing. What could his opponents, including former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley and Florida governor Ron DeSantis, have done differently to topple him?

The impulse to answer that question is understandable. The twice-impeached Trump started the primary season with less than 50% support from the Republican electorate. The logic was if just one alternative could catch fire, a one-on-one matchup could at least spark a competitive race.

The reality? There is no answer. Much to the dismay of critics, hindsight tells us that Trump was right in framing 2024 as a coronation, not a primary. His opponents ran far from flawless campaigns. But even if they’d been near-perfect, Trump’s nomination was inevitable.

Here are five reasons why.

1. Criminal prosecutions

Nothing boosted Trump’s momentum — upwards — more than the cascade of criminal prosecutions he’s faced. The fact that the first indictment to land, a dubious charge for falsifying business records in New York, was also the substantive “runt” of the litter only helped his cause.

True to his brand of “grievance politics”, Trump effectively framed himself as the victim of a politically motivated witch hunt by a Democrat district attorney. That narrative only grew as more indictments — 91 in total, spanning two federal cases and another felony case in Georgia — stacked up.

Trump didn’t get a bump in the polls after every successive indictment. Yet the first prosecution was more than enough to propel him. According to Real Clear Politics, Trump’s numbers rose about six percentage points in the first week after he was charged. Since then, he’s not looked back.

2. Ballot disqualifications

Trump didn’t need even more help to make his case that Democrats were “weaponizing” the legal system against him. But he got it anyway in the form of two major efforts to disqualify him from running for office under the 14th Amendment for allegedly engaging in “insurrection” on January 6 2021 (the attack on the Capitol).

In December, the Colorado Supreme Court handed Trump an early Christmas present by ruling in a 4-3 decision on his ineligibility. Later that month, Maine’s Democrat secretary of state followed suit in issuing a similar decree.

Right on cue, Trump doubled down by decrying the decision to disqualify him as “the most anti-democratic opinion I’ve seen in my lifetime”. He used fundraising to bolster his position in the polls, and cement his position as a martyr for the right-wing base.

3. Electability, folks

For Republican elites, a big strike against Trump was his supposed unelectability. Cue DeSantis, who’d won the governorship in the swing state of Florida by a whopping 19 percentage points in 2022. Also enter Haley, who’d enjoyed an 80-plus percent approval rating while governor of South Carolina in the mid-2010s.

The electability argument, however, failed to resonate with rank-and-file voters. Not for no reason. Republicans were told to go with the “electable” candidate in 2008 in John McCain. They lost. They were told to do the same with Mitt Romney in 2012. They lost.

Polls also never confirmed Trump was unelectable. Today, most data has Trump narrowly beating Biden in the national popular vote, albeit within the statistical margin of error. They also show Trump with significant leads in key battleground states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan, Georgia and elsewhere.

A white, red and blue flag, with Trump for president on it.
Donald Trump is expected to be the Republican candidate for president. Valerio Rosati /Alamy

4. Backing from the party machine

Recent months have dispelled misplaced hopes among anti-Trumpers that Republican party leaders would throw their weight behind another candidate, or act as neutral power brokers in the primaries. Instead, the GOP party machine has “put its thumb on the scale” for Trump.

That’s true rhetorically. No sooner had Trump won his second primary in New Hampshire that Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel declared: “We need to unite around our eventual nominee, which is going to be Donald Trump, and we need to make sure we beat Joe Biden.”

Party rule changes have also aided Trump. Take Nevada, for example, where the state GOP bucked the scheduled primary and instead held a caucus where Trump was the only major candidate on the ballot. The result: Haley got trounced by “none of these candidates” in the defunct primary. Trump captured all 26 official delegates destined for the Republican National Convention.

5. Craving the real deal

Who wants a calorie-condensed version of Trumpism when Trump Ultra is on tap? More than anything, that sums up the average GOP voter’s response to speculation that a “Trump Lite” candidate was what conservatives really craved.

Many experts theorised that a “less feral, more pastel” alternative to Trump would be welcomed by a silent majority of Republicans who were turned off by Trump’s foul mouth, impulsiveness and “bull-in-a-china-shop” mentality.

That theory’s been debunked. Yes, Trump-backed candidates got trounced in the 2022 midterms. Yes, the Make America Great Again (Maga) vote didn’t turn out to complete the expected “red wave” that everyone in the party expected.

But Trump wasn’t on that ballot. He’s a singularly iconoclastic figure whose appeal can’t be measured through proxies or wannabes.

The reality: GOP voters never wanted Trumpism without Trump. Instead, they wanted Trumpism with Trump. Or more precisely, they just wanted Trump. The fact that nearly 70% of Republican voters still believe the “Big Lie” — that the 2020 was rigged — only added to the feeling that Trump was “owed” a second chance at the nomination.

Inevitably, they’ll get their wish.

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